Higher education’s been in the headlines in Australia this week thanks to the annual Universities Australia conference, and some speculation that the prospects for the deregulation package passing the Senate, were either improving, getting worse, or staying much the same. The UA conference is a bit of a birthday for CASA, as last year’s conference was the reason we got started. Looking at this year’s agenda, not much has changed. It’s still evidently possible to promote a vision of quality in higher education without addressing the sustainability of university employment, despite increasing dependence on casual and contract staff to cover the actual work that universities do. As the NTEU put it this week:
For speech lovers, Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s speech to the conference dinner outlining the case for reform is here. and Kim Carr’s speech outlining the ALP’s objections to fee deregulation is here. Universities Australia’s Chief Executive Belinda Robinson’s speech to the National Press Club is here (transcript here). The conference was also covered by The 730 Report for the ABC, and the transcript of Leigh Sales’ three way interview with two university Vice Chancellors and the President of the National Union of Students is here. Belinda Robinson’s speech compared the predicament facing universities to that of Aron Ralston, the climber who sawed off his own arm in order to survive:
Cuts to revenue mean larger classes, the abolition of less popular courses, campus closures, less student support and services, degraded facilities, less community engagement, and greater employment insecurity. These are the things that get caught between the rock and the hard place. These are the limbs that get severed for the sake of survival.
It’s an awkward metaphor, but one that probably resonates with those who found this semester’s expected casual hours cut at the last minute in a cost-saving exercise.
What’s happening elsewhere?
National Adjunct Walkout Day in the US was followed closely in Canada. The Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations launched a campaign in support of improved employment for contract academics. Continuing strikes by graduate students, TAs, part-time faculty and contract RAs in Toronto have drawn responses from Canadian higher education commentators Alex Usher and Melonie Fullick. At the Higher Education Strategy blog, Alex Usher doesn’t mess about, and is worth quoting at length:
One thing the labour disputes in Ontario highlight is the amount of undergraduate teaching done by non-tenure track professors. Numbers on this are hard to come by, and poorly defined when they are. York sessionals claim to be teaching 42% of all undergraduate classes – but how do you define a class? But from what I’ve gathered from talking to people across the province who are in a position to know, it is not uncommon at larger universities to at least see between 40 and 50% of all undergraduate credit hours (which is the correct unit of analysis) taught by sessionals.
Think about that for a minute: half of all credit hours in major Ontario universities are taught by staff who are off the tenure track. People with no research profile to speak of. Yet aren’t we always told that the combination of research and teaching is essential in universities? Aren’t we told that without research, universities would be nothing more than – God forbid – community colleges? So what does it mean when half of all undergraduate credit hours are taught by these sessionals? Are students are only getting the essential university experience half the time? And the other half of the time they are at community colleges? If so, why are student and taxpayers paying so much more per credit hour?
Melonie Fullick at University Affairs looks back at the history of contract academic employment in Canadian universities, to make the point that none of this happened overnight. The shift to mass education in the 1960s and 1970s drove the need for more university teachers without supplying the budget for these needs to be met with tenured positions. Fullick quotes researcher Glen Jones from OISE who argues that “maintaining the status and the supportive working conditions of the full-time, tenure-stream professoriate has largely been accomplished through labor cost efficiencies created by the increasing use of part-time, contractual university teachers, now frequently represented by labor unions that are distinct from their full-time peers.” Additionally, as in Australia, the casualisation of academic work in Canada has intersected with other social factors to result in the current strong gender skew in untenured positions.
If the problem is not “new”, if indeed it’s an entrenched part of how universities now operate, what are the implications? Work that helps the university achieve its core mission should not be work that is marginalized and devalued. While I hate to end a post like this with another question, I have to ask: if teaching is what universities do — and this is also the public perception — then what message does it send to address the need for teaching in this way?
In Canada as in the US, the increasingly obvious dependency of the tenured professional class on the willingness of graduate students and adjuncts to show up and teach without adequate pay, resources or entitlements is starting to rankle. Commenting on the strikes at York U, The Star ran an article asking what justification there is for “a coddled elite of tenured professors” having their teaching loads reduced, leaving such a large proportion of teaching to be covered by their part-time colleagues.
This week The Conversation’s UK website ran an article by a group of PhD students at the European University Institute, asking very similar questions about the state of higher education staffing across Europe and the US, pitching their concerns as “a plea from the future“—the future academic workforce.
What happens if this precisely skilled workforce starts to disperse? See this article from The Pope Centre for Higher Education Policy on the emerging economy of academic freelancing, from pay-per-view online courses, to consultancy and self-managed contract work. Scott Rank’s article is fairly blithe on the possibility of surviving on piecemeal freelance rates, but it’s worth pointing out that the mainstream conversation about the future of universities hasn’t noticed this possibility at all; meanwhile, for a candid discussion of the practical consequences of letting go of university affiliation (and what to do if this happens to you), read Katie Rose Guest Pryal’s latest column for Chronicle Vitae.
With things as they are
Closing this week with a special cheer to the Victorian Supercasuals campaign, now featured on the NTEU website here. Thanks for sharing the news around, and have a good week everyone. We have some non-news articles in the pipeline, and if you’d like to write with us, you’re really welcome–just holler at casualcasa at gmail dot com.
Kate & Karina